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Mayor Of Casterbridge Essay, Research Paper

One of the most striking aspects of The Mayor of Casterbridge, for example,

is the role of festival and the characters? perceptions of, and reactions

to, the festive. The novel opens with Henchard, his wife and baby daughter

arriving at Weydon-Priors fair. It is a scene of festive holiday in which

?the frivolous contingent of visitors? snatch a respite from labour after the

business of the fair has been concluded. Here Henchard gets drunk and vents

his bitterness and frustration at being unemployed on his marriage.

Henchard negates the festive and celebratory nature of the fair by his egotism.

What the people perceive as a joke permissable under the rules of topsy-turvy,

the licence of the temporary release from the world of work, Henchard means seriously

and in that act which refuses the spirit of festival he places himself in a

position of antagonism to the workfolk, an antagonism which grows with time.

From this opening the motif of festival shadows the story and mimes the ?tragic?

history of this solitary individual culminating in the ancient custom of the

skimmington ride. This motif forms a counterpoint to the dominant theme of work

and the novel develops on the basis of a conflict between various images of the

isolated, individualistic, egotistical and private forms of ?economic man?

(Bakhtin?s term) and the collectivity of the workfolk. The many images of

festivity – the washout of Henchards? official celebration of a national event,

Farfrae?s ?opposition randy?, the fete carillonnee which Casterbridge mounts to

receive the Royal Personage, the public dinner presided over by Henchard where

the town worthies drank and ate ?searching for titbits, and sniffing and grunting

over their plates like sows nuzzling for acorns?, the scenes of revelry in the

Three Mariners and Peter?s Finger – culminate in ? the great jocular plot? of the

skimmington. This ?uncanny revel?, which like a ?Daemonic Sabbath? was accompanied

by ?the din of cleavers, tongs, tambourines, kits, crouds, humstrums, serpents,

rams?-horns, and other historical kinds of music? is completely hidden from ?official?

Casterbridge for when the magistrates roust out the trembling constables, nothing is found:

?Effigies, donkey, lanterns, band, all had disappeared like the crew of Comus?.

It is the last we hear of the workfolk?s mocking laughter for ironically the very

success of this resurgence of carnival prepares the way for its suppression.

Elizabeth-Jane?s marriage to Farfrae signifies the truimph of the serious,

the organized, the moral, the rational, the final triumph of spirit over

the disorganized, the passionate, the festive, the flesh.

The essence of Elizabeth-Jane?s character is restraint and,

like Farfrae?s, her actions are characterized by their?reasonableness?

and her perception of the world is consistently ?tragical?.

In the closing passages of the novel she reflects that joy is no

longer an integral part of life but an interlude in a general drama of pain, a sentiment

which signals the victory of Christian morality over passion, the final triumph

of the morality of the pale Galilean. That certainly is Hardy?s intention, but in

the very ambiguity of that victory the limitations of the ideaology of the thinking

world are revealed precisely through the ?colonial? status of the people over whom

the new ideological forms now rule. Those ideological discourses which speak of

unity and harmony and universality are put into contradiction by images of suppression,

domination, conflict, not by virtue of the images per se but because they enable us

to see the ?outside? of a discourse which, claiming to be universal, has no bounds.

In their periodic outbursts of ?pagan? celebration the workfolk throw off the impositions

of sobriety and respectability in a spontaneous rebellion against social order in which

anyone who partakes becomes involved.


In the structure of perceptions it is taken for granted that women?s sight is determined

in the main by the distracted gaze, their tendency to take the appearance for the essence

expressed by Christopher Julian in relation to Ethelberta ?That?s the nature of women——–they

take the form for the essence.? This perception appears in The Mayor of Casterbridge as

an authorial observation when Lucetta Templeman refuses to notice the impoverished Henchard

because he appeared ?far from attractive to a woman?s eye, ruled as that is so largely by

the superfices of things?. Similarly when Giles Winterborne meets Grace Melbury on her

return from school she is perceived as manifesting the same ?weakness? and Giles wryly observes

to himself that ?external phenomena? such as clothes or appearance ?may have great influence

upon feminine opinion of a man?s worth, so frequently founded on non-essentials?.

Through the observations of author and characters we are clearly given to understand that women

perceive the real as the apparent through the operation of the distracted gaze so that a woman?s

knowledge of people or the world appears to be merely the awareness of the effects of the impressions

made by the things she looks at.

But these observations are made in the context of women who have been, in one way or another,

socially displaced and in different ways artificially transformed into ?ladies?.

They are all in a sense acting a part and, most importantly, because of the role they have assumed

or been forced to assume are perceived in different ways.

The servant?s daughter, Ethelberta Chickerel, is about to marry Lord Mountclere ?to benefit

her brothers and sisters?; the once poor Lucetta Templeman has just been elevated, as the attractive

consort of Donald Farfrae, to the position of first lady of Casterbridge;

Grace Melbur y has just returned from finishing school where she has been transformed

from wood merchant?s daughter to a ?finished lady?. Clearly every female character is

different and each performs a different role in the novel in which she appears and in which

she achieves her reality as a ?living? character in the imaginary struggles in which she (and we)

becomes involved. Thus the ?tragic? consequences of Grace Melbury becoming a ?lady? bear no

resemblance to the ?comic? consequences of Elthelberta Chickerel becoming Lady Mountclere.


With The Mayor of Casterbridge, we arrive at a full statement of Hardy?s universe

consciousness of the inadequacy of the old order is “modern consciousness” [it] is a study

in the discovery of self-alienation. Or we learn that ?in a sense [Henchard] is man? and in

his ?passage towards self-awareness we can read the sufferings of an entire species in its

struggle to master a destiny which demands the subjection of powerful instinctive forces?.


At the heart of The Mayor of Casterbridge ?there is a sense of the cruel irony of life

Hardy sums up his philosophy in the last paragraph. It is the key-note of The Mayor

of Casterbridge. Life gives bitter blows . The sense of an inscrutable fate overlooking

man?s life hangs over [the novel] it is a novel of disillusionment, of helplessness in the

face of the circumstances of life.? There is a consistent emphasis on the helplessness of

individuals, of the hopelessness of the human situation (H.C.Duffin is quoted to the effect

that The Mayor of Casterbridge is ?the most hopeless book ever written. The tone of the telling,

in the latter half of the story is stony despair?) and of man?s stoical endurance in face of

the blows meted out to him by fate. And the phrase ?they do not come out of their experiences

finer than they went in? is repeated like a litany, a silent accusation of Hardy?s Godlessness.

The more sophisticated York Notes commentaries have a firmer authorial imprint

(each being written by a different academic/critic) and perhaps by virtue of their being

representative of a point of view rather than a distillation of many points of view they

appear to be more authoratitive, more ?critical?, less dogmatic. This is because we are

moving into a higher and more sophisticated articulation of aesthetic ideology.



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